As a teenager in Magherafelt, nothing
more than a mere boy, I became a willing
turf cutter’s mate. I earned a few bob
lending a hand to my Dad and got to drive
an old Massey Ferguson from time to time.
He cut the turf with a long handled spade,
with a blade so sharp it could cut a man’s
foot in two, then we castled in threes to dry.
After a week or so, as the sun did it’s job,
the cut turf was ricked and stacked.
It was back breaking work. Cold, heavy black cuts
of peat tossed with well practiced throws:
caught with well practiced catches. Tired,
we lay panting at the side of deep dug moss holes.
Running our hands through the cool brackish water.
I didn’t dare smoke. My father was a godly man.
So I held my cravings in and tucked into
jam sandwiches my mother had brought as we
fought nipping clouds of midges in the heat of
the June afternoon.
We timed our exit to the minute. The moss was
alive, crawling with the dreaded midge. A few,
a man and boy could tolerate, but as the sun fell
beyond the infinite flat horizon, they rose like
a winged army to harass and bite.
The tractor trails were narrow and deadly. One
false turn and a tumble in an open tractor cab
into a moss hole twelve feet deep and another
twelve of black peat silt beckoned the foolhardy.
We drove carefully but with purpose.
Once, we mistimed our day. It was late in the
Summer and we had loaded hundreds of rough
earthy briquettes into a high sided trailer.
Tied and secured (My dad was a stickler for
doing things well) we left.
Too late. The air was alive with buzzing. The
heather, pink and sweet became an animal unleashed
as clouds of midges drawn to our sweat and scent
bit anything exposed. My mother suffered badly.
Her face swollen, red, puffed up.
After that, we had enough of turf cutting for
a while. There were sheds full of the stuff at
my Gran’s. Enough for three winter’s ahead. We
did go back. Just the once. One last trailer load
and one last look across the pink heather.
I haven’t set foot on a peat moss since.